Ellen Mara De Wachter

Painting from the Zabludowicz Collection

Painting from the Zabludowicz Collection consisted of five solo exhibitions and one group show at the Collection’s London exhibition space. It brought together displays of works by Francesca DiMattio, Matthew Chambers, Josh Smith and Albert Oehlen, as well as a group show entitled Painting in the 2.5th Dimension.[i] While the solo presentations sought to engage with the attitudes and specific working practices of the artists in question, the group show focused on an exploration of what an expanded notion of painting might consist of today, taking into account the reciprocal influences of fields such as photography, sculpture and science. Spanning more than 30 years, the works in these shows invited visitors to enjoy one of the most established art forms through its current manifestations and its recent past.


Installation view, Painting in the 2.5th Dimension
This text is the introduction to the book of interviews which accompanies the exhibitions as an invitation to consider the act of painting itself and the encounters that take place when we look at paintings. Numerous meetings and conversations with the artists in the shows revealed the intriguing ideas driving contemporary painting. For many of these works, the materials and processes deployed in their making count for more than just the shape of the finished artwork; they have an active role per se. The meanings these works produce transcend the traditional division between abstraction and figuration and ask us to develop new ways of talking about contemporary painting. For many of these works, the materials and processes deployed in their making count for more than just the shape of the finished artwork; they have an active role in the meanings these artworks generate. Most of the works in these exhibitions might on first reflection be categorised as abstract art. However, when considering this classification more carefully, it quickly becomes evident that the term ‘abstract’ falls short as a description. The fact that processes of making are such an integral part of the visual form of the works means that they do possess literal and representational qualities too, but without being a ‘picture of something’
 
Albert Oehlen, Evilution 1 (2002)
The materials these artists use and the ways they use them exceed the physical realm; they are also – and to a large extent – the content and meaning of the woUntitled (9 ½ Weeks) consists of the Hollywood erotic drama projected over one of his own paintings. It stages a competition between the forces of painting and those of film. The confines of these two disciplines bleed into one another, and the winner remains undecided. As Oehlen describes, ‘you want to see the movie and you forget about the painting but actually you stare at my painting for an hour and a half and it is burned into your eyes.’
 

The materials these artists use and the ways they use them exceed the physical realm; they are also – and to a large extent – the content and meaning of the works themselves. With these works, the kind of stuff – oil paint, acrylic, fabric, ceramic, digital paint tools, resin or found metal – an artist chooses and the way he or she applies it to the painting’s surface do not serve an idea or image. In large part, they actually constitute the idea that the painting hinges on. Looking at how a painting has been made can sometimes tell us more than trying to make out what the painting represents, or situating it within the realm of art history. In Albert Oehlen’s works, for example, each line has a meaning and a role, which convey the artist’s attitude. They require the bodily presence of the viewer and a careful kind of looking in order for the work to make sense. Oehlen’s Untitled (9 ½ Weeks) consists of the Hollywood erotic drama projected over one of his own paintings. It stages a competition between the forces of painting and those of film. The confines of these two disciplines bleed into one another, and the winner remains undecided. As Oehlen describes, ‘you want to see the movie and you forget about the painting but actually you stare at my painting for an hour and a half and it is burned into your eyes.’

 
Works by Matthew Chambers, 2010-2011
Matthew Chambers challenges himself to produce paintings that interest and surprise him, in which he ‘can go beyond the image, or beyond the idea of an image into a state of catharsis’. Failing that, he tears unsuccessful paintings into strips, which he uses to compose what he calls his ‘slash paintings’, some of which are then painted silver and transformed into ‘chrome monochromes’, rising phoenix-like from the debris of frustration.
Works by Francesca DiMattio
The materiality of Francesca DiMattio’s works is also crucial to their meaning, and the cultural connotations of the paints, fabrics, ceramics and found materials she uses influence how we understand them. Her use of collage within a painting or a ceramic sculpture pushes materials past their comfort zones, and they acquire a totally new meaning, which ‘calls for new adjectives’, as DiMattio puts it.
Jessica Dickinson, Full-See (2010)
In discussing her approach to the act of painting, Jessica Dickinson describes a process of ‘putting the surface through certain events’. This yields what the artist calls a ‘“radically cared-for surface”, but it’s cared-for and banged around … painting is a surface on which a lot of time has been spent’. Dickinson’s abstract paintings depict the processes of their own evolution, which are evident both in the finished works and via a number of by-products such as the wax rubbings of these paintings made at different stages in their production.

Nathan Hylden, Untitled (2011) and Untitled (NH2912A) (2012)
For Nathan Hylden, a decisive attitude in developing unique processes of production is an essential tactic for creating his own meaning among myriad other possibilities: ‘I believe, as is common, that setting up certain parameters creates an opening for me to work.’ Honing one’s own unique methods is an essential approach in this day and age, when the historical significance of particular materials and tools risks foreclosing the meaning of a work. By developing their own recipes and ingredients, artists ensure the integrity and interest of their work.
 
These interviews also make it clear that the conceptual binary of abstraction versus figuration is no longer apposite to discussions around contemporary painting, and that other terms might be sought instead. These new expressions might circumvent the paralysing crisis in the discourse around representation by addressing materiality and meaning together, in one fell swoop. Concepts or words such as ‘concrete’, ‘literal’ or even ‘narrative’ might enable us to begin exploring the actual sequences and processes implicit – indeed, often explicit – in the works. In many of these works, the process of making is foregrounded to such an extent that it becomes central to the concept of the work. Finding a new way of talking about painting might involve telling the story of how works are made, or, better still, highlighting the ways in which they already tell the story of their own making.
 
Tauba Auerbach, Untitled (Fold) (2010)
This new way of looking would ask our imaginations to transcend what is given, in order to imagine how it came to be; to feel the difference between a static object and the processes that have fed into it during its creation. Such an approach might bridge the chasm between the artwork, taken as an object, and its meaning, taken as an immaterial thing in our minds. Tauba Auerbach couches this kind of expanded thinking in terms of dimensionality, and with a distinctly affirmative attitude: ‘if a fractional dimensional state can be achieved between two and three dimensions – 2.5-D – that action might do something to just slightly erode the boundary that seems to divide these two seemingly discrete states. I don’t want to wait until I die to be able to experience that, or at least to think about it more skilfully and joyfully.’
 
Works by Josh Smith
While searching for a new way of talking about painting is an exciting challenge, some painters are primarily concerned with the act of painting itself, leaving analysis and theorising to others. As Josh Smith puts it: ‘I don’t think you should paint abstractly or realistically, necessarily. You should be able to look at something and paint it, even though you don’t paint it well. It’s something artists should do more: just paint a building or a car.’
 
Ned Vena, Untitled (2012) (detail)
The search for terms to occupy the gap between the binary opposites of abstraction and figuration is a recurring theme in contemporary thinking about painting. For Ned Vena, the dilemma of abstract versus representational harks back to seminal works from the 60s, and extends well into today: ‘I make target paintings and I find the word target, used in the 60s to describe circular works with concentric circles painted on them, to be an interesting label for an abstract painting. It’s an abstract object, using a relative and literal term as a title or description. It seems contradictory. It’s like Josh Smith’s name paintings, which exist in a really ambiguous grey area between abstraction and representation.’
 
The way we look at art – the how, when and why – plays an important part in building its meaning: we give a painting hanging in someone’s living room a very different meaning from what we might give it were it hanging in a national museum. Looking is an active, changing and ongoing process, even after the artist has stopped working. As Sam Falls says about the ways in which an artwork lives on beyond the artist’s studio: ‘I like to think about how you engage time, not only in production, but also in viewing.’
 
Sam Falls, Untitled (Model Painting, Light Green) (2012)
This catalogue brings together interviews with artists, conducted in person and by email. It has been a privilege to work with artists on these collaborative conversations, which have enabled us to create meaning together by accounting for the intentions that preceded the work as well as the material results of those intentions.
 
Painting is not a fixed thing; it suggests a space, an openness, a field of enquiry that constantly remakes itself. It calls forth an active viewer, and invites us to engage with materials, processes and ideas in ever-changing ways. After the exhibition itself, this collection of interviews – in which every effort has been made to let the voices of the artists ring true – is the first port of call on an ongoing journey.
Ellen Mara De Wachter, Curator, Zabludowicz Collection


[i] This expression is taken from: Aude Launay, ‘Tauba Auerbach – Realist Abstraction’, Dossier, 02 no. 61, Spring 2012, page 16. ‘The trompe l’oeil works, the Folds waver between 2D and 3D, floating in what Tauba Auerbach calls the 2.5th dimension.’
 
This essay was originally published in the catalogue accompanying Painting from the Zabludowicz Collection, available here
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This entry was posted on July 17, 2013 by .
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